Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Rocky Horror Show – are you ready for the late night, double feature picture show? (Grand Opera House until 26 March)

The opening minutes of The Rocky Horror Show feel like a very safe break from the seriousness of March 2022. The beat of the music welcomes you with the familiar melody of The Time Warp. The Usherette sets up what will follow as a cheap cinematic delight from the 1950’s sci fi horror genre.

But this is a real curate’s egg of a production.

The audience is more excited than usual to be in a theatre. Glance around the stalls and you’ll spot pockets of patrons wearing elaborate and glittery costumes ... though no men in tights could be spotted on Monday night. Pure escapism.

The curtain lifts and reveals Janet and Brad driving home in the rain from a wedding. They get engaged, experience a puncture, and walk into the madness of Dr Frank-N-Furter’s imposing home with its life-exploring scientific laboratory.

Yet, while the vocal talents of Ore Oduba and Haley Flaherty are never in doubt, the chemistry between Brad and Janet is a bit anaemic. Neither in gesture nor glance do they really emote the warm tenderness that the audience would expect from these sweethearts who first noticed each other across the exam hall.

On the opening night of the tour’s run in Belfast’s Grand Opera House, understudy Reece Budin delightfully stepped into the shoes of the Narrator. He quickly establishes how risqué he’ll be with a topical Prince Andrew gag – and later a dig at Lurgan – and takes his time to skilfully parries with the audience’s anticipated (and occasionally more random) heckles and call backs.

(If you’re in the Belfast audience this week, feel free to gulder “Stormont” straight after the line “Where is this?” and before the next line of dialogue: the audience will erupt into kinks to the bemusement of the cast!)

Lauren Ingram’s Columbia brightens up scenes with her powerful vocal riffs, while Kristian Lavercombe and Suzie McAdam make a fabulous transition between oppressed doormats and otherworldly visitors.

Has much changed since the March 2019 tour?

The first half is still unexpectedly short, breaking before the multiple climaxes after the interval. The lighting design is as sharp as before, and the set quickly adapts to each new scene. The big anthems like Eddie’s Teddy (a somewhat unexpected highlight) are performed with pizzazz, soaring electric guitar, and a bassline that’ll rattle your ribs.

But this is a more subdued production from director Christopher Luscombe. The central couple are less obviously destined to be wedded. Ben Westhead has the physique worthy of being objectified, but not the gymnastic background of Callum Evans to throw himself around the stage.

And think too hard, and there is much to trouble about the plot of The Rocky Horror Picture Show which definitely leaps about like a hastily cut 1950s sci fi movie. The musical is set up as a film. But the lack of consent in the central scenes between Janet, Frank-N-Furter and Brad portrays rape culture without any consequences.

Stephen Webb is still a commanding presence on stage as Frank-N-Furter, a manipulative sexual predator – not quite the Sweet Transvestite he sings about – that only one housemate can see through. True fans don’t seem to be bothered, but theatre doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s definitely an unacknowledged aspect of this story that began life in the mid 1970s and works so hard to create an empowering queer aesthetic.

If you fancy a visit to the late night, double feature picture show, head down to the Grand Opera House before Saturday 26 March. But don’t be an Eddie or a Rocky. Bring both halves of your brain and interrogate what you see!

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